By Kylie Atwood, Natasha Bertrand, Jennifer Hansler and Kevin Liptak, CNN
Washington (CNN) — Top US and European officials are concerned that Russian President Vladimir Putin is factoring the 2024 US presidential election into his Ukraine war planning in hopes that a loss by President Joe Biden next year will lead the US to curtail its support for Ukraine and improve Russia’s negotiating position, four US officials told CNN.
The US does not yet have explicit intelligence about Putin’s mindset, or whether he is purposefully dragging out the war in hopes of a Donald Trump or Republican presidential victory. But next year’s election remains a key factor that top Western national security, intelligence and diplomatic officials believe will influence Putin’s decisions in Ukraine, making it even less likely the war is resolved before the end of next year. A CNN poll conducted by SSRS that was released on Friday found most Americans oppose Congress providing additional funding to support Ukraine, as the public splits over whether the US has or has not already done enough in the conflict.
One US official said they have “no doubt” that Putin is “trying to hold out” until the 2024 election. Another source familiar with the intelligence said “it’s sort of the elephant in the room” for the US, Ukraine and Europe.
“Putin knows Trump will help him. And so do the Ukrainians and our European partners,” the source said. “So even though we haven’t seen anything explicitly to that effect, you have to assume, I believe, that everyone is thinking it.”
A European diplomat told CNN that they believe trying to ride out the war in Ukraine until the US election “is exactly Putin’s plan.”
Officials who spoke to CNN on condition of anonymity to discuss private internal considerations believe that Putin could be eyeing a win by Trump, or another Republican candidate, as a trigger for the US to pull back support for Ukraine. They also say that Putin’s eye on the election makes it even more important for the US to maintain long-term support to Ukraine, a commitment that the Biden administration continues to reiterate.
Trump, the far-and-away front-runner for the GOP nomination at this point, has not committed to backing Ukraine in the war. He has claimed that as president he could have the war settled in 24 hours, and just this week he said that support for Ukraine should be conditioned on congressional investigations into Biden and his family.
While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis walked back previous statements calling the war in Ukraine a “territorial dispute” he has maintained a broadly anti-interventionist policy. Congressional Republicans have also drawn a tougher line on funding for Ukraine since the GOP took control of the House this year, with Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy suggesting earlier this summer that he would plan to block any Senate-led efforts to approve additional funding to aid Ukraine’s war effort.
“The election next year complicates things because the Russians think they have a light at the end of the tunnel. It encourages Putin to think that they can outlast the Americans because political support for Ukraine will be compromised if Trump wins,” said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland.
Mounting pressure on the counteroffensive
The forthcoming US presidential election has put even more pressure on the Ukrainian counteroffensive, with Europeans, Americans and Ukrainians all hoping for substantial Ukrainian gains to potentially impact Putin’s calculus before the end of next year.
One European official said that without those gains, it was possible to predict Putin attempting to drag out the conflict until the results of the contest are known – essentially forestalling any attempt at negotiating an end to the fighting. That prospect has lent urgency to Europe’s attempts to ship ever-more-powerful arms to Ukraine, hoping to shift battlefield momentum before next year.
At this year’s G7 summit in Japan, the American election was the subject of anxious discussions among delegations, the official said, as leaders looked ahead to what could prove to be a decisive factor in the Ukraine war. Biden has sought to tamp down those concerns, but European officials view even a close race against Trump as reason for Putin to try extending the conflict until November.
“Putting a shape on the US election will have an enormous effect” in how the war proceeds, the official said.
In the most recent New York Times polling, Biden and Trump are locked in a tie, each with 43% of voters supporting them.
The looming US election is also on the minds of Ukrainians, two sources told CNN. They are hoping to make gains on the battlefield in the short-term that could change the dynamics at play sooner rather than later.
“The Ukrainians want to win or have something that changes due dynamic before late this year. There are all sorts of reasons for their urgency – such as Ukrainians dying everyday – but the US presidential election is one of them,” said Bill Taylor, the former US ambassador to Ukraine.
But so far the Ukrainian counteroffensive has not resulted in major breakthroughs.
“It has and will continue to be a tough fight for them,” Pentagon spokesperson Patrick Ryder said this week, noting broadly that the counteroffensive has moved forward.
Ukrainians are determined that there still may be gains in the short-term and US officials are cognizant of the need for sustained support so even after the summer Ukraine can continue fighting.
Peace talks in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is set to host peace talks on Ukraine this weekend that will include the US as well as a number of Western and developing countries. The talks will be aimed at developing shared principles to end the war and discussing the kind of security assistance Kyiv will need to deter Russia from ever attacking Ukraine again, US officials have said.
“We are not looking at these talks as generating any concrete deliverables at the end of them. The point of these talks is to continue the conversation with countries around the world about how we obtain a just and lasting peace at the end of this war,” said State Department spokesperson Matt Miller on Wednesday.
While Russia will not be at the table, the question of what Putin is willing to do – and whether he would even abide by a ceasefire or peace agreement – will be top of mind, officials said.
Though the idea of peace negotiations at this point in the war appear premature, US officials believe that multiple factors could impact how dug-in Putin remains on the battlefield, including pressure from the global south.
“These are the countries that could make a difference if they applied pressure to Russia,” said a second US official referencing countries in the global south, especially larger countries such as India, adding that driving up their interaction with Ukraine would be beneficial even if any negotiated peace might be far off.
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